David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon remake is exceptionally unexceptional, but it’s a rare treat for a family film to be so low-key.
Pete’s Dragon is the sort of movie Disney haven’t made for a while. It adopts the template not of the 1977 musical on which it’s based, but of earlier family adventures like Napoleon and Samantha (starring a young Jodie Foster… and a lion). Low-key from start to finish, with little spectacle or flash, it’s an astonishingly feat that the House of Mouse bothered funding David Lowery’s film at all, since it’s the antithesis of what seems to appeal to children in movies these days (cynical humour and jive-talking animated animals, primarily). The opening five minutes consists of a horrific and fatal car accident in which Pete (Oakes Fegley) is orphaned, and the remainder of the film is extremely quiet, dark and understated. Unfortunately, there’s too little dramatic substance to complement this pace, and the film never truly finds its direction. Nonetheless, the levels of charm in the simplicity of the world the film explores are undeniable. Pete’s Dragon is, if not a great film, a film nobody could actively dislike.
Fegley is occasionally impressive as Pete; he’s a more polished actor than The Jungle Book‘s Neel Sethi or The B.F.G.‘s supremely irritating Ruby Barnhill. The adult cast consists of reliable peripheral actors untested in significant roles: Bryce Dallas Howard, Karl Urban, Wes Bentley. The great Robert Redford is under-utilised. Lowery’s relationship with small-town, back-road America is evident on screen (it’s always nice when a director gets to inject some personality into a Disney summer movie). The locations are taken full advantage of, and several extended overhead driving shots are enchanted by terrific musical choices.
Though I enjoyed it a great deal in childhood, the original Pete’s Dragon is by no means a masterpiece, or even a classic, and a remake isn’t entirely unwelcome. The songs weren’t that great, the animated dragon was distractingly goofy (the 2016 dragon is definitely better) and Sean Marshall (Pete) was a bit annoying. However, the lighthouse home of Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney’s characters was magical, more so than anything in Lowery’s film. 2016 Pete’s is all about the sawmill, but I must admit: I’m more of a lighthouse kinda guy.